Japanese TV makes no sense to me. Aren't they ashamed? How can professionals bear to let their names go out on work like that? Obviously I'm not talking about their anime, which is world-beating, but instead about their tendency to make live-action comedy and drama full of actors who either aren't actors or are hamming it up enough to embarrass five-year-olds. I could understand this better if the shows were garbage, but they aren't. The production values are fine and in all respects but one we're talking about good, solid television.
As an example, this morning I had the extreme fortune of watching TV Asahi's 2007 Maison Ikkoku special. What makes this even more painful is that before I started, I'd actually been optimistic. It could have been anything. It could have been one of the many respectable Japanese TV shows that can be watched by normal people. It could also have had a cast of retards, bimbos and pop stars, but that we've been spared. I'm grateful for that, I suppose, but in saying so I'm entering a "one hand clapping" world of zen criticism, making judgements about the acting ability of a cast who aren't doing what I'd call acting. Mind you, as bad as this is, it could yet have been worse. You have no idea. These performances would seem to be aimed at seven-year-olds, but that's aiming high compared with some other Japanese TV shows and at least this won't make you want to hunt down the perpetrators and smash their faces with bricks. You'd merely laugh a lot if someone else did it for you.
Oh, and in case you'd forgotten, we're talking about Maison Ikkoku, one of the most remarkable TV shows I know. The manga and anime are classics. This version isn't.
I'd better discuss the story. It's covering the anime's first twenty-odd episodes, so Kozue and Mitaka only appear at the end in a kind of "Coming Next Week". (In fact the sequel came fourteen months later.) This keeps things focused, which is a sensible move, and the film does one clever thing in creating a framing story several years later of Godai talking to his daughter. This means we can end on a relatively inconclusive note and yet it doesn't matter, because we know it's part of a bigger story. The screenwriter is Yoshikazu Okada, which surprised me because he also adapted Oppai Volleyball (which is great), but unsurprisingly I'm not about to recommend his work here. Even if you can disentangle the script from the production, it's one-dimensional and cliched in its handling of the central Godai-Kyoko romance. I rolled my eyes at Kyoko's "why am I angry?" scenes. Similarly Godai's bone-headed antics aren't given enough build-up, which the film only sometimes gets away with.
Okada isn't the real problem here, though. His script is reasonably faithful to the manga storyline, at least. Yes, I'm about to talk about the actors.
What's almost shocking is the fact that several of these actors have been in proper films. Coming out of it best is Ittoku Kishibe as Yotsuya, even though he's not trying to be scary or creepy. Nevertheless he's strange, unpredictable and entertaining while also managing to come across as a real person. Kishibe's also in Happy Flight, Zatoichi and the 2007 Japanese TV special remake of Kurosawa's Ikiru
and I'm sure he's good in them too. Spot the one in that list I'm not planning to watch. (Hint: it's the words "TV special".)
However another performer you'd expect to be good is Kayoko Kishimoto as Ichinose, being a regular in Takeshi Kitano films, e.g. Hana Bi (1997), Dolls (2002), Takeshis (2005). Wrong-a-mundo. She's poor. She's mostly non-horrible things when just having a conversation, but I didn't believe in her drunken dancing for a moment. Most annoying though is the third of Godai's evil housemates, Yumiko Takahashi as Akemi. At least the other two give the impression of being proper actors, but slumming. Takahashi though sniggers by wobbling her hand in front of her immobile face, for instance. Nevertheless you can't say that the problem here is lack of talent. Even grand old veterans are fitting in with the house style, so you've got Toshiyuki Hosokawa as Kyoko's father-in-law being tedious with material that should have been beautiful, while even Kin Sugai has the odd moment of pantomime. This woman could blow you through the back of your sofa if she wanted to. Who in the world takes an actress like that and gets her to do anything other than what comes naturally, being such a veteran that she's still great despite occasionally making you want to push her down a lift shaft. Sugai's debut films were the original Godzilla
and Kurosawa's Ikiru
back in the 1950s, you know.
Then you've got the leads. Taiki Nakabayashi is likeable as Godai. He's suitably gormless and sweet, not to mention on occasion even capable of comic timing. However that said, he's also shallow as a lick of paint and the cast member most likely to have sung in a band. He's at the level of a charming child actor. Meanwhile opposite him as Kyoko is the heart-stoppingly gorgeous Misaki Ito, who was also in Ju-on (2002) and the TV version of the Japanese mega-hit Train Man. She's likeable, but she too is simply saying her lines and being cute. She's rather lovely as a widow and finds more gravity than I'd expected for those scenes, but she doesn't have Kyoko's maturity and the most important part of her performance is her doe-eyed look when asking questions. This is adorable. Ito knows it. Admittedly she does fewer annoying things than most of her co-stars, albeit in a role that's basically the straight man, but there's no way of getting around, for instance, her Dong of Surprise. This is the live-action equivalent of anime characters falling over in shock with their legs in the air. Ito's head tilts to the side and there's a comedy "dong" noise.
For another example, consider her sigh on the roof. Do anything that perfunctory on British or American TV and you'd be sacked so fast that your feet wouldn't touch the ground. However that's just the start of what's the worst scene in the special, with Kyoko never convincingly being asleep and yet Godai saying and doing things no human would be comfortable with unless Kyoko were actually dead. Exactly the same scene worked like gangbusters in the anime, incidentally.
All that said, occasionally I laughed. There are good bits. It's never straightforward making an audience laugh, but in this case it's a miracle since I'd been seething. "Pass this year" was funny, as were the Evil Three's gags about Kyoko stripping and their distortions of the truth regarding Godai's drunken confession. Then you've got little things like Yotsuya going out in his hat and Kyoko unwittingly telling off Godai's grandmother.
I like the way they're trying to be faithful to the original, although I think they're closer to the anime than the manga. The boarding house is perfect. I was blown away. That was awesomely cool for about thirty seconds, with the set design even going so far as to copy the original's huge numbers painted on the doors. That looks a bit goofy in live-action, but what the hell. At the end, they've also got Mitaka's gleaming smile. However all this gets shot down in flames as soon as we meet the Evil Three, with Yotsuya not being sinister, Ichinose not being built like a sumo wrestler and Akemi not being sexy. In fairness the special's trying to do Akemi's nudity, but in a family-friendly way and so she's introduced in an ugly nightgown before stripping down to underwear that's more like bulletproof body armour. I like the idea of "she strips when drunk", but it's pointless to do it so pusilanimously.
They can't even get Godai and Kyoko's Othello game right. Godai should have turned over two more pieces on that diagonal.
This film is unforgivable and Japan's TV industry should be ashamed. I clockwatched, I writhed and I had trouble making myself watch the screen. I can't pretend that it's all that bad, but enough of it is that the whole thing's torpedoed. The most naturalistic performance is Ikki Sawamura as Mitaka Shun and he's only in it for thirty seconds. The acting was better in the anime and I'm not just talking about the voices. Kyoko's father-in-law, for instance, is a cartoon in the live-action version and a warm, kind human being in the cartoon. Can I force myself through the 2008 sequel? Maybe it'll be less bad. They changed the director after all, while I'd like to be able to think that Sawamura keeps up that naturalism. At the least I won't be going in with expectations.
By the way, is it just me or did Yotsuya and Ichinose seem like a married couple in the bar? That was weird.